Man contracted HIV as a baby, starts ‘End The Stigma’ campaign
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Doctors call him a medical mystery.
A Brunswick man lived 16 years before doctors realized he contracted HIV as an infant.
Derek Canas, 30, said the news was tough to take as a teenager. He was teased and judged by people who didn’t even know him.
Now, he’s on a mission to share his story with anyone who will listen. He started a campaign called ‘End the Stigma’ to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.
“Not talking about it is the biggest problem,” he said.
Nearly 1 in 7 people are living with HIV and don’t even know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Canas was born with a rare heart defect. In 1985, he received blood transfusions at the Medical College of Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Canas become very sick. He spent 16 years in and out of hospitals before doctors figured out what was wrong with him.
“They found out I never had an HIV test, and they asked me if I would submit to one. Two weeks later , I came in and they told me it was positive,” he said.
By this time, the disease had developed into AIDS. Canas sued MCG and the doctors he said failed to diagnose him. Lawyers were able to trace his infection to the blood transfusions he received as an infant. After a nearly decade-long legal battle, the hospital settled with him out of court.
“When I was discovered, I had zero immune system. My immune stat was completely wiped out.”
Canas said he started the ‘End the Stigma’ campaign to speak up for those who might be too afraid to speak for themselves. Through community outreach, he’s using his love of music and education to start a dialogue about HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of AIDS patients out here, you get diagnosed and you’re told to be quiet and take your mess and that’s the way it is. That’s an old school mentality,” he said.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida had the highest number of newly diagnosed HIV infection cases in 2013. Georgia came in fifth place.
More than 8,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Nassau, and Baker Counties, according to a February 2015 AIDS Surveillance Report from the Florida Department of Health.
Lolita Hill is the director of HIV services for River Region Human Services. She said there’s a reason Florida is leading the pack.
“We are testing more people than almost any other state,” she said.
HIV tests can be found at a number of places, including local health departments, community-based organizations, and hospitals. Several agencies, including RRHS, will administer the tests free of charge. Using what’s called a ‘rapid test’, people can learn their HIV status in about 20 minutes.
“Don’t allow stigma to kill you. Come in. Be tested. Allow us to help you through the process. There are so many people out there that I know are still hiding,” Hill said.
Derek takes half as many treatment pills as he did in the beginning and now has a long and healthy life ahead of him.
“It’s not a death sentence anymore. It wasn’t a death sentence when it happened to me. I know the impact of hearing those words related to yourself, it feels that way.”